We’re in week five of the Lenten season. If your anything like me you’ve lost your vigor for with which you started the season. Today’s Lenten reading hit home for me. To start from the beginning go here or just read the section below if you need to consider where you have chosen to marry yourself to sin rather than remaining faithful to your primary love – Jesus.
Throughout the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the one engaging the process of prayer is counseled to continuously ask for specific graces that he desires. But before he can desire something he has to see clearly what it is that he needs in order to follow Christ more perfectly – presuming that is the ultimate desire that motivated him to start on this journey in the first place. There is a complex psychological shift that has to occur in the exercitant to bring about a conversion of his desires. Each step of this conversion must be both intellectually clear and emotionally aligned. Thus what we call spiritual conversion is a multidimensional development in the exercitant. Intellectual knowing alone is not enough, and vaguely general sorrow isn’t enough – these movements in the person have to be brought together by God’s grace to alter personal consciousness at a depth that causes enduring behavioral change, and that is the goal of the Spiritual Exercises.
During the first week or second stage of this process, Ignatius proposes that one ask for the grace to know the dimensions and the real character of sin in the world and specifically in his own life, and to feel so sorry for that sin that she actually grieves over her faithlessness. In becoming open to the gifts of God’s grace the exercitant discovers that in order to be free from sin and healed from its death dealing effects, she must want to see clearly and then actually face the darker side of her inner life, recognize it, and claim its power over herself where she has chosen to marry herself to sin rather than remaining faithful to her primary love relationship with God.
Today’s liturgy of this fifth week of Lent takes us into identical spiritual territory.
The readings specifically explore the necessity of seeing and understanding both the nature and the power of our sin writ large (“lifted up”). Only then can we be healed from sin and its effects in our lives and our world. In the first reading we have the very vivid story of the people of the Exodus grumbling and complaining as they cross the desert. This behavior, which comes from the very people that God had rescued from horrific oppression in Egypt, under a Pharaoh who consumed their lives to feed his false god persona, is grossly ungrateful. Not only had Yahweh rescued them from oppression, but he provided quail and manna to eat and a fresh stream of pure water (from a rock, no less) to drink. God is taking them to a land “flowing with milk and honey” where they will be His people, protected and loved. But they are a querulous bunch, who cannot see either the nature of their own dependence upon God, or the responsibility of gratitude. Their sin of ingratitude is as twisting and venomous as a poison snake which kills with its bite, but it can’t be recognized until it is lifted up on a pole and each person has to look at it and see his or her own darkness of heart to be “cured” of its effect.
The author of John’s Gospel sees in the caduceus (serpent on a stick) of the Torah story a type or way of interpreting Jesus’ crucifixion. When, battered and bleeding, he is “lifted up” in front of us it is possible for all of us ungrateful idolaters to see, to know, to recognize, and to understand, through God’s grace, the nature and cost of our sin for ourselves, our world and to our loving Lord. Jesus took our sin into his own human personhood in order to put it to death and be the instrument for our release from the sin that condemned him and all its death-dealing consequences.
Ignatius challenges the one who wants to pursue the life of grace to stand before the cross and ask of the dying Jesus three questions: “What have I done for you? What am I now doing for you? What can I do for you?” While meditating on the scripture passages from today’s liturgy that little conversation might become the most important moment of my whole Lent, or possibly, my whole life.
I need some Lent and I suspect you do too.